Autumn Adkins Graves, the outgoing president of Girard College, has a bit of advice for her successor.
“Make sure you spend time with the kids, because that is what gets you through the difficult moments,” she said. “They’re amazing.”
Graves, 39, will leave the post she’s held for three years on June 30. She plans to return to New York City, where her husband recently got a promotion, making his four-hour commute to Philadelphia unsustainable.
Nevertheless, Graves will continue to be a presence in Philadelphia.
“I will continue to have connections here,” she said, noting that her parents and two siblings live in the city, and that she’s taking part in an executive doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania. “I love Girard and what it represents in terms of changing the lives of children in our city. Once Girard becomes a part of your life, you never really leave, and Girard will always be a part of me.”
The college, once closed to Black students, was a key battleground in the city and nation’s civil rights movement. It was integrated in 1968 when the first Black student was admitted. Female students would gain entry in 1984.
Now, minority students make up the majority of the student body.
Graves, who was appointed in May 2009, was the institution’s first Black and first woman president.
“That was not a new experience for me,” she said, running down a short list of other schools where she had been the first African American or first woman in a leadership role. “But, here at Girard College, it was amplified in very different way because of the history of the school — and because of that I received a number of different supports. A lot of women in Philadelphia reached out and were incredibly kind and supportive of me. I’ve enjoyed a lot of hugs and prayers from freedom fighters.”
Still, when she stops to reflect on her tenure as president inspires a note of gratitude.
“My grandmother was a domestic. She was the help. She didn’t go past seventh grade,” Graves said. “So there is a lot of significance to this role because of where I’ve come from. My other grandmother was college educated, but her mother was a slave. So, I find that my story, my history here, is another thread in the fabric of the American story.”
The school has faced financial problems recently as a result of the recession. Enrollment has been pushed down from over a high of more than 600 students to 465.
Graves said she hopes school officials find a way to reverse the trend.
“I wish that Girard had the capacity to have more students here,” she said. “Girard has made progress, but the financial and programmatic challenges it faces today will force us into a period of change, and Girard requires a leader who can devote all of his or her energies to that challenge, to see it through from start to finish so that Girard can grow and thrive in the years ahead.”
The school’s trustees are planning to appoint an interim president then launch a national search for a permanent replacement for Graves, who said she would work with the board to ensure a smooth transition.
Trustees lauded Graves for her work.
“It is with enormous respect that we have accepted Autumn’s decision to step down,” said Bernard Smalley, the head of the Board of City Trusts’ Girard College Committee, in a statement. “Autumn has spearheaded the effort to make Girard one of the pre-eminent urban boarding schools in America, and she has performed her duties with skill and devotion. All of us in the Girard family — students, faculty and staff, parents and leadership — owe her a debt of gratitude, and we look forward to continuing to work with her in the future.”